Head Carpenter Builds Rewarding Career
Outside the theatre world, the title “head carpenter” evokes images of hammers and nails, saws and tool belts. However, behind the plush velour curtain – in performing arts – such jobs involve a myriad of duties, only some with tools. Other responsibilities closely resemble the roles of a stage manager or technical director.
“My title is common on Broadway, which helps touring shows know who they should talk to,” explains Jason Gay, Head Carpenter at the Ohio Theatre in Columbus, Ohio. “The title isn’t really representative of what’s happening in our workplace.”
Lean and Friendly
Gay has worked at three different performing venues managed by the Columbus Association for the Performing Arts (CAPA), the last 16 years at the Ohio Theatre. “I’m in one of those jobs where, when people leave it, they likely either transition into an executive position or leave the business,” he notes.
Unlike some venues, where head carpenters report to a technical director or production manager, the Ohio has four head carpenters all reporting to the vice president of operations. “We run lean,” says Gay.
He’s also running, metaphorically at least, to keep up with daily challenges. Gay and his colleagues must perform most of their duties during non-public hours. Like every job, some days are better than others. Gay finds it exciting to meet touring professionals, whether they are visiting for one night or performing for a month.
“The relationships I’ve built with performers, technicians, choreographers and others – those are very rewarding,” he comments. “Many people return here again and again.” In some cases, it’s professional-level camaraderie; other times Gay says true friendships are developed and maintained through e-mails, texts or phone calls.
Gay was raised in Columbus, where he was involved in high school drama productions. “If I wanted to make a living in live production, I quickly learned I needed to be a technician,” he recalls. “It’s very difficult as a performer and my heart wasn’t in it.”
He attended Otterbein University north of Columbus and studied theatre technology. The program required him to intern during his senior year; Gay landed at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut.
“This experience was really valuable; I came out of college not really knowing how the business worked,” remarks Gay. During almost two seasons at Goodspeed, Gay immersed himself into everything possible. With its proximity to New York City, Goodspeed attracted Broadway-caliber talent between bigger jobs.
Back in Columbus, Gay’s college roommate had started working for CAPA and invited him to help out; the opportunity lured Gay home. “I returned for the holidays to work for a few weeks – but I never left,” Gay recalls. The decision was largely based on economics: regional theatre didn’t pay very well, while CAPA was managing professional, for-profit venues.
Gay was first hired as an electrician, running the lighting system at the Capitol Theatre, which was a relatively new space. Throughout his subsequent career, he’s been in the right place at the right time, moving around within CAPA facilities as positions became available. Gay’s passion for musical theatre made the Ohio an attractive job.
Today Gay is able to watch every show that plays the Ohio, either from the side of the stage or out front in the house. He believes seeing from the audience’s perspective is vital.
And when the audience gives a standing ovation at the end of show, Gay takes satisfaction in knowing he played a part in that success. “I get a charge out of sharing that experience,” he declares. He adds, “When audiences are entertained and enjoy themselves, they can forget about their troubles for a little while.”
One memorable concert event for Gay involved Prince, who visited the Ohio around 2000 on a small theatre tour. “I wasn’t working full-time here then, but I subbed that night because my predecessor was on vacation.” Gay exchanged a few words with Prince backstage before the performer went on; Prince was known for being punctual. “For music, that show was one of the highlights of my career,” says Gay.
The Ohio Theatre is recognized for its stunning architecture and celebrated history. According to the CAPA website, it opened in 1928 as a Loew’s movie house with 2,779 seats – a Spanish-Baroque masterpiece. More than $1 million was spent on original furnishings and art – more than the cost of the building itself!
“This is a magical place – they really don’t make them like this anymore,” concludes Gay. “I’m honored to work here, continuing the tradition of those before me.”